When looking at the numbers connected to student loans, it confounds me that only three presidential candidates have come forward with education reforms. Twelve percent of all Americans have a student loan to repay. The debt they have accumulated, $1.3 trillion, is greater than the nominal GDP of Mexico in 2014. Hillary Clinton has proposed a long-overdue education reform that despite its flaws will alleviate the burden on future students of lower income and on current students with outstanding loans. At the same time it will make certain that states spend more on colleges, ensuring their affordability.
Repaying a student loan reminds me of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” wherein a character had to cut a pound of flesh from his body to repay a debt. There are two major issues with the current repayment system: first, there is no limit on how much a loan payment can make up of a student’s income, and second, the interest rate is higher than it should be. Many politicians, including Democrat Elizabeth Warren, have openly protested against the fact that student loans have become a source of revenue for the federal and state governments. Clinton’s program tackles these issues by ensuring that a student’s payment will never be more than 10 percent of their income, and that graduates with outstanding debts will be able to refinance it at current interest rates (4.39 percent for undergraduate students). The interest rate for future college students will be lower from the beginning.
The hardest challenge for the reform, which may also make the biggest difference, is lowering university tuition. Her reform envisions free community college, earning a debt-free four-year degree from state schools and rewarding states that invest more in higher education. Her plan includes colleges that reduce the costs, ones that are more capable of serving a minority or low-income population, using additional grants. The Atlantic argued that requiring states to increase spending on universities might be perceived as an expansion of federal power. While the states’ reaction is a valid concern, the aspects of the reform that go beyond the students and force states and universities out of their comfort zones make it a game changer.
Another concern, voiced by Steven C. Bahls, the president of Augustana College, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, is that making undergraduate education at public institutions debt-free will steer students away from applying to private universities, which can offer very generous financial aid packages. He refers to Michelle Obama’s description of the support she received at Princeton University as a first generation undergraduate and her calls for collaboration between private and public institutions in lowering costs. I have to disagree with Bahls. If Clinton’s reforms are implemented, students will still be able to apply to private institutions. If they are not accepted in private universities, or find the cost too high, they will have an opportunity to pursue their education in a state university debt-free. The choice between attending a private or a public institution is hard, but the reform does not remove it altogether.
So what is the downside? The reform will cost $350 billion for the next 10 years, and Clinton will limit the tax deductions for some high-income taxpayers to fund it. Republicans have protested this provision, and I can understand their frustration. While the program is mostly oriented towards low-income students, it will be funded with high-income taxpayers’ money. An argument can be made that the people investing in this reform will not be the ones to reap the benefits. To me, an investment in future generations of American students, regardless of their debt is an investment in America.
This reform will encourage students to focus on their studies, rather than funding them, thus, transforming higher education for the better.
Photo courtesy of Graphics Editor Padya Paramita ’18